In its retrospect on the history of the European novel, Tomasi di Lampedusa's Il Gattopardo identifies the figure of the aristocratic male libertine as a particular novelistic object of erotic attraction and repulsion. The nobleman's sexual dominance and whip-wielding brutality is a measure of the social dominance of his class, but the turning of his own power against himself in self-flagellation likewise indicates how the aristocracy, in the historical long run, may destroy itself from within. Taking its cue from Lampedusa and beginning with Don Quixote, this essay looks at social fantasies that the novel, a genre associated with the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie and its values, weaves around the eroticized figure of the aristocrat. It documents, in Madame Bovary, the gradual replacement of the nobleman-rake in Emma Bovary's fantasies and love-affairs with substitutes produced by a money-ridden bourgeois society. It shows, in À la recherche du temps perdu, how the Baron du Charlus's masochistic desires are thwarted by working classes too sentimental about their social superiors to imitate the model of the Russian revolution: aristocracy will endure in France. In the visions of both Flaubert and Proust, the sexual allure of the declining aristocracy is tied to a sense of the aesthetic itself and to the question of what of aesthetic value can survive in modern mass culture and in the novel, which is that culture's dominant literary form.

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